Drink Up! The Differences Between Japanese Bars & Izakayas

Photo: inefekt69 on Flickr

Drink Up! The Differences Between Japanese Bars & Izakayas

Liam Carrigan

For as long as I have been part of the working world, the Friday afternoon sojourn to the pub for a well-earned beer or two at the end of a hard week has been something of a staple of working life.

Of course “heading down the local” as it is often stated in colloquial terms is not a purely Scottish or English thing. Americans love a post-work pint and, as I have learned in the past few years, so too do the Japanese.

It’s amazing actually to know that Japan is not a country full of alcoholics when you consider the extent to which communal drinking is part of their daily lives!

But perhaps the reasons why alcoholism, and indeed the drunken violence that often accompanies it, are far lower in Japan is down to the way drinking establishments here are set out.

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Philip Lai on Flickr

I refer of course to that great bastion of working class relaxation, the izakaya.

On initial inspection, some izakayas may seem like mere simple restaurants, others may have the appearance of something more resembling a bar or the traditional British pub. However, there are a number of differences, some subtle and others less so, that set aside izakayas from such establishments.

For in truth, the traditional Japanese izakaya is neither a bar nor a restaurant, but perhaps best described as somewhere in-between. They serve as an amalgam of what are, in my opinion, the best qualities that both these kinds of venues have to offer.

So what is it that sets izakayas aside from other eateries and drinking dens in Japan?

First off, unlike a restaurant most of the food comes in small portions, designed to be shared amongst friends. Perhaps the closest European equivalent would be the much-loved and world-famous Tapas of Spanish cuisine.

Such foods are meant to accompany and compliment your drinking, and perhaps this is another reason why public drunkenness is less of an issue here in Japan than it is in most other countries. For, as much as medical experts do, rightly, discourage alcohol consumption, it is almost universally acknowledged and accepted that eating while you drink lessens the effect of the alcohol on your faculties.

The drinks on offer are also a little more refined than what you would find in the local pub. Izakayas offer a huge variety with everything from sake and wine, to whisky and rum usually on offer.

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scion_cho on Flickr

You’ll also find a few uniquely Japanese drinks that really have to be experienced to be believed. I especially recommend the “Yuzu Highball”. This is a whisky-based cocktail of soda water, whisky and a syrupy extract from the Japanese indigenous citrus fruit known as yuzu. In the same way that an izakaya isn’t really a bar or a restaurant, but something in the middle, it could also be said that yuzu is neither a lemon nor a lime, nor an orange, but has some similarities to all three of them.

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Yuzu Highball photo by chinnian on Flickr

Of course it goes without saying that one must sample the sweet delight that is umeshu (Japanese plum wine) whenever they visit this country, and there are few better places to get a glass of the good stuff than at the local izakaya.

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Umeshu photo by cyclonebill on Flickr

Seating layouts at the izakaya are also noticeably different from conventional bars and restaurants. Many izakayas have private booths and rooms, of varying sizes, boxed off to allow them to accommodate groups and parties of all sizes, whether it’s your company's bonnenkai (end of year party) or an intimate date for you and that special someone, the izakaya has you covered.

And of course there are some foods that just somehow taste better in the izakaya. Sashimi is a prime example. Yes, you can almost certainly get higher grade, and far more expensive sliced raw fish in boutique restaurants and bistros, but there’s certainly a lot to be said for the simple pleasure of a few slices of freshly prepared salmon or tuna alongside some moderately priced sake or a cold nama (fountain) beer.

Of course, as one would expect, Osaka, known by many as “Japan’s kitchen” boasts some of the best izakayas in the world. Here are a few suggestions to try out next time you’re in town.

1. Torikizoku: Various locations.


Torikizoku has pretty much sewn up the “cheap and cheerful” market when it comes to izakayas in Osaka. They have possibly the best kara-age (fried chicken) around, as well as excellent seasonal hotpots, fried rice and seafood dishes and a great deal more.

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Chi (in Oz) on Flickr

Also, drinks are very moderately priced, and depending on the day of the week that you visit, you may be able to enjoy a two hour nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) menu for just ¥1200, which is about the same price as two beers in a regular bar in the city centre.

2. Ishinden: Tempozan, Minato Ward, Osaka


Ishinden is something of an undiscovered gem as far as izakayas in Osaka go. Although its biggest selling point is perhaps its ¥280 drinks menu, the food on offer is pretty good too.

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Okonomiyaki photo by toyohara on Flickr

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Chijimi photo by Michael Stout on Flickr

The menu is also perhaps a bit more internationally minded than many of Osaka’s food establishments. Alongside Osaka stalwarts like okonomiyaki (savory pancake) and the aforementioned sashimi you’ll find the likes of kimchi and chijimi (two very popular Korean dishes) as well as more conventional western fare, liked flame-grilled steak and even french fries. Though quite why anyone would want to order French fries in a Japanese eatery is beyond me.

3. Kyushu Danchi: Umeda, Osaka


This final entry on our list offers something a bit different. Specializing in western and Japanese fusion dishes, you’ll find such delights as chicken stuffed with vegetables and cheese, deep-fried mochi with cheese and some of the best grilled chicken yakitori in the area. My only criticism of the place is the way that they quite substantially increase their prices on weekends. Since I don’t wish to encourage this practice, which let’s face it, is down to nothing but sheer greed, I don’t frequent this place any longer. However, the food is excellent and if you can visit on a weekday when the prices are far more reasonable then that’s even better.

Indeed, Osaka is truly worthy of the moniker of “Japan’s Kitchen” and I can’t stress enough just how enjoyable a time you will have if you visit an izakaya while you are here. As the Japanese like to say when toasting the end of a busy week: “Kanpai!”

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Mista.Boos on Flickr